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How to Run a Digital Workshop

07 May 2020, 09:56

Companies contact ML6 when they want to solve their problems with Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. However, the problems to solve and exactly how to solve them is still an open question. Pre-corona times we would organize ideation sessions, data architecture review sprints, technical trainings with lots of post-its on different walls and flip charts, working in physical breakout rooms to tackle individual challenges. This is not feasible anymore with the 1.5-meter-economy as people are forced to work from home. In this article, I will tell you how we have transformed these real-life on-site sessions into virtual workshops.

As ML6 is a digital-native and agile company by design we can shift to a WFH policy without much hassle. We need to not lose speed and efficiency during this crisis. This puts us in the ideal spot to help companies learn how to get this digital-native mindset and learn some in-the-field best practices for digital transformation. We help them ensure business and innovation continuity during these unusual times. And organizing a digital workshop is one of these problems we had to overcome.

Problem statement

To try out this format we did a little virtual brainstorming ourselves, with the following problem setting:

How can we predict and overcome the next pandemic outbreak?

First I will introduce the tools used, then I will walk you through how such a typical virtual workshop could look, and finally, I will give you some tips and tricks to improve on the general session.

Tools used

For this virtual workshop, we mainly used three tools. As a Google Cloud Premier partner, we are big fans of the digital ecosystem Google provides and are heavy G Suite users ourselves. Many of these tools are perfectly fit to facilitate virtual meetings and workshops. If you already have G Suite in place at your company this virtual brainstorming session will not cost you any extra money and also no need to install anything locally on your laptops. If you don’t have G Suite you would only need to have an alternative of the Google Meet tool.

Excalidraw is a great open source tool for collaborative virtual whiteboarding.

Google Meet, a video conferencing tool for real-time meetings and part of the G Suite stack.

Google Docs, a Collaborative online document writing tool and also part of the G Suite stack.

We call this tool stack the egg-stack 🙂

Course of the virtual workshop

Preparation

Make sure that everybody has already prepared a few ideas before they enter the virtual meeting as coming up with initial ideas can be a bit harder in an online setting. Also for each different session, you should make a different video conference room with Google Meet, so the goal is more clearly shifted when you also shift the call. You can even go as far as making coffee break rooms with a fireplace video running in the background, as breaks are even more important in online sessions.

Conference session

To kick off the session, introduce the goal again, get everybody aligned on what to achieve and most importantly explain the structure of this new way of working from home.

Whiteboarding session

For the generation of ideas we wanted a tool that comes close to whiteboarding as the real thing, so we choose Excalidraw. With this open-source tool, it is very easy to draw post-its as one would normally do with a whiteboard.

Result of the digital whiteboard session drawn in Excalidraw, with the different colours indicating inputs of different individuals

Breakout sessions

After the group has generated some ideas with voting, a set of best ideas will be selected and discussed in what we would call breakout sessions. The group will be split up in sizes of maximum five people where a single idea is being discussed and tested on the feasibility and what we would need to start executing this idea right now. As you discuss, write the next steps and the limitations down in Google Docs to make it tangible.

Wrap-up

To conclude the virtual workshop all the people will come back to a single plenary call and each breakout session will present their ideas so everybody is aware of all the discussions.

Snapshot of our digital brainstorm session

Tips & Tricks

Install the Grid View for Google Meet extension for Google Chrome so you can see all the participants that are in the call to improve involvement in the meeting.

Because anybody can write on the whiteboard at the same time, less extraverted people have an opportunity to participate because the flow of discussion does not have to be interrupted when writing a new note while people discuss in the video conference room.

As all the breakout sessions will be hard to oversee, it’s best to assign breakout session leaders as an organizer to organize the train of thoughts and write down the results of the discussion in Google Docs.

Take a five minute break every hour to keep people energized and focused. Add an unrelated minigame to the workshop to keep excitement levels up. From our experience, we suggest a maximum of four hours per day to run a virtual workshop. If needed, the workshop can be split over multiple days.

Conclusion

All in all it was exciting to experiment with these tools and workshop concepts to find an efficient solution for the WFH economy most of us are experiencing right now. Only Excalidraw is something we had to get familiar with as the G Suite stack is in our blood. Furthermore, what were the outcomes of our virtual workshop you might ask? We decided that we should focus on improving epidemiological models to try and model a pandemic outbreak better and being able to include strategies of tackling an outbreak as model parameters. Also, we opted for setting-up a global database where doctors all over the world can share anonymized data on viruses, so we can improve our epidemiological models but also share knowledge efficiently.

Are you interested in running a virtual workshop and need expert support? We’re happy to help you with any of the following formats:

  1. Ideation, use case qualification, project scoping and AI roadmap
  2. Data & ML architecture, process review
  3. Technical training and upskilling of your workforce